Saturday, August 09, 2008

Help! I'm learning to read, write, and speak again!


I just took a rather long stroll through the Museo de Los Niños in San José (The Children's Museum). It's built in a former military base that needed another use when Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948. I wish I'd taken a photo, but I didn't bring my camera. I walked a large part of the way through an area I was advised not to carry a lot through. Here's one someone else took from out front at a geocache hidden in a cannon. It's odd because it kind of reminds me of the Disney castle - with turrets and colorful flags and pastel-colored walls. Inside there are tons of fun activities for kids. But this was a real fortress - the turrets are real, there are pillboxes inside, huge columns and guard towers, and barred prison cells.

Quite an amazing place! They have a helicopter, a real plane you can play in, a computer lab, and interestingly - a pretend coffee shop right next to a small "farm" where coffee plants and banana trees are growing. There are activities and explanations on where the coffee comes from and how its grown. There are trains and buses the kids can climb in. It includes parts of Costa Rican history, legends, scientific information about the universe and human bodies, nutrition, and literature. It was absolutely fascinating. Oh, and the geocache hidden out front helped to satisfy my adult treasure-hunting desires.

One of the most interesting rooms I almost missed because it was upstairs in a place I somehow skipped. But I was drawn to it by a HUGE racket of noise. Kids were talking and laughing and yelling. When I found what all the ruckus was about... it was a mini-grocery store for kids. Yes, there was a huge room designed like a real grocery store, complete with miniature shopping carts, cashiers, a laser scanner for barcodes, a scale to weigh vegetables, and hundreds of "products" to buy. The goal of this room, as far as I could tell, was to educate kids to become good consumers and purchase nutritious food. You picked up a shopping list on the way in and had to try and follow the directions, purchasing healthy foods within your budget. The cashiers would ring up everything in your shopping cart - and if you messed up or went over your budget, the character on the computer monitor scolded you and you had to try again. There was nutritional advice everywhere and even instructions to parents on how to talk to your kids about finances.

Fascinating, I thought. And that room was definitely one of the most crowded. The kids loved it.

Another thing that struck me was that I couldn't understand ANYTHING. This is a children's museum, and I was running around pushing buttons and trying to read things, understanding nearly nothing. Some of my schooling will transfer over - but I still have to learn a completely new vocabulary for things I already know. Plus, an entire new set of history, legends, values, and culture.

I think every guest to a new country should visit the "children's museum." First, you'll realize you're suddenly less educated and competent than an 8-year-old. And yet, you've probably been given the responsibility of an adult. I have a driver's license in this country and I don't know the names of the planets or how to read the nutritional information on the side of a cereal box. (Oh, I forgot to mention I got a driver's license. It only took 2 1/2 hours and less than $30. I was amazed! This is in contrast to my attempts to get a driver's license in Haiti. After 5 trips downtown to the offices, I gave up.)

Secondly, at a children's museum you'll learn a lot, starting like a child when you can't even read. All you can do is push buttons and watch lights blink to indicate things on a colorful map. You can pick up different pieces of rock and feel parts of the body to guess what they're called. You'll start to tune into values and heritage almost immediately - what kind of a country would turn a war stronghold into a center for kids to explore and learn? Doing away with their military in 1948 left plenty of resources for education, developing ecotourism, and building parks. I've been to old prisons and castles before and I still get a heavy feeling of the history of the prison. You get the same feeling walking into here. But it's hijacked and immediately channeled into learning about the natural beauty and culture of your country.

What was I talking about? Oh yes, learning the values and customs of a new culture by learning what their kids are taught. I suggest it. I'm growing to appreciate the natural beauty, the parks, and the family-oriented emphases of this culture myself. It's nice to observe... now if I only knew enough spanish to talk to someone about it...

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